Monday, September 21, 2009

Andrew Sullivan on the Problem of Evil

It's always nice to see philosophy appear in popular culture. Andrew Sullivan makes brief mention of a good discussion of the problem of evil from Russell Blackford.

Russell Blackford argues that the paradox of suffering requires one to become an atheist. He writes that the "intellectually honest response, painful though it may be, is to stop believing in that God":

[M]ost of the supposed explanations of evil make sense only in a pre-scientific setting. They are now absurdly implausible even at face value. In particular, most of the suffering that there has been on this planet took place long before human beings even existed. An all-powerful God did not need any of this. It could have created the world in a desirable form without any of it just by thinking, "Let it be so!" That's what being all-powerful is about, if we take it seriously.

I have never found the theodicy argument against faith convincing. My own faith teaches me that suffering is part of a fallen creation that lives and dies - how could it not be? But it also teaches me that suffering in itself can be a means of letting go to God, of allowing Him to take over, of recognizing one's own mortality and limits. That to me is not some kind of crutch. It is simply the paradox of the cross.

This is amusingly nonsensical (including his misuse of the term "theodicy"), but the interesting point here is that we have a theological argument based on purely fictitious events. This is like making your anecdotal argument based on stories that aren't even true in the first place. (This formulation is based on Al Franken's discussion, from Rush Limbaugh is a Big, Fat Idiot, of Ronald Reagan and others doing this.) How can events that never happened--humanity's sin and fall from grace--justify harms to humanity that our current free choices can neither cause nor prevent?

Perhaps the snake and the Garden of Eden story is metaphorical, and that the fall is not something that happened in a mythical past, but something we are constantly experiencing as we exercise, and misuse, our free will. That might work as a justification for moral evil (evil caused by human action), but it makes no sense as a response to natural evil (evil caused by events, such as earthquakes etc. beyond the control of any human).

The appeal to faith, to belief in something even though it makes no sense--"the paradox of the cross"--is the last refuge of the incompetent.

Imagine a dialog: "Believe in me, I am God!" "If you're God, can you cure my cancer?" "No, I won't, that's the mystery of faith."

If one does not have an answer, one can always appeal to faith but such an appeal is intellectually and morally bankrupt.

I suppose the idea is that our inability to answer these questions is supposed to show not that we should doubt the existence of God, but that we are limited and imperfect beings and should put our trust in God to make decisions for us. If someone actually believed this, I'm not sure what one could say since that person would also be giving up his/her reasoning capacity. Perhaps I should convince that person that I am God? But, fortunately, no one believes this. Can one criticize Dick Cheney for sponsoring torture? Or should one put faith in God that all this is really for the best? I think the answer is obvious to everyone, but no one wants to face the consequences of this thought, so they mouth some platitude about "paradoxes" and go back to thinking of other things. This is what Socratic self-examination is all about, and why it will always be unpopular.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Oklahoman Ignorance

I was prompted to write this set of responses to a survey by the Oklahoma Council on Public Affairs. The point of the survey is to demonstrate the complete lack of knowledge of Oklahoma public school students. Before I do anything else, here are the questions, the correct answers and the fake Okie answers.

1. What is the supreme law of the land?
2. What do we call the first ten amendments to the Constitution?
3. What are the two parts of the U.S. Congress?
4. How many justices are on the Supreme Court?
5. Who wrote the Declaration of Independence?
6. What ocean is on the east coast of the United States?
7. What are the two major political parties in the United States?
8. We elect a U.S. Senator for how many years?
9. Who was the first President of the United States?
10. Who is in charge of the executive branch?

The correct answers are in fact:
1. The supreme law of the land in America is the golden rule: He who has the gold makes the rules.
2. Not worth the paper they're printed on.
3. Two parts of US Congress are the dumbfucks and the whiny little shits.
4. This is a trick question; the correct answer is that there is no justice on the US Supreme Court.
5. This one is oversimplified but ok.
6. This is also a trick question; there are no oceans on the east coast or on any coast. Oceans abut, are beside, next-to or are adjacent to coasts but are not on top of them.
7. Same as answer #3.
8. We elect them for as long as they want to be there or until they have sex with one or more of the following: a prostitute, a farm animal, another man in a men's room, their assistant, a lobbyist, or a lover in Argentina. Just kidding, the only one that rules you out is the farm animal, and that's only if you're caught.
9. Washington is actually the correct answer here too.
10. The executive branch is run by a collection of powerful economic interests who pull the strings of someone elected from a group of nearly-identical candidates who will continue to do the bidding of exactly those interests (with some minor variation in which interests have the greatest influence).

The correct answers from the conservative Oklahoman perspective:
1. The Bible
2. The Right to Bear Arms and toilet paper
3. Us (Republicans) and Them (the Other)
4. Scalia and Thomas--the rest have already been impeached in citizen tribunals
5. God
6. Liberal, east coast elite oceans that deserve to be pumped for oil
7. Us--Republicans; there is only one political party in Oklahoma
8. Forever if they're Republicans; never if they're democRats
9. Newt Gingrich (but also God)
10. Dick Cheney (and don't forget God)

I was led to this by a discussion on Balloonjuice. Many there noted, the Oklahoma Council on Public Affairs is a right-wing group committed to undermining public education in OK. That doesn't mean that their statistics are wrong, but I would not place my trust in them doing a proper survey given that they are trying to show OK students to be ignorant boobs. Also, I wouldn't be surprised if people like the OCPA are responsible for 11% of Oklahoma students thinking that the two major political parties are Communists and Republicans. The shocking and fishy nature of the results led me to look more closely at the methodology.

Fishy results
There are really two fishy parts to the results. (And these were noted several times on the Balloonjuice thread, so pardon the repetition.) First, the percentage of answers to these supposedly open-ended questions always added up to 100%. It's possible that the other answers that did not fit those categories sometimes exactly equalled a roundoff error in the other answer totals, but it's statistically unbelievable that this would happen 10 times in a row.

Second, the odds that one would not find at least one minimally competent student (who could answer 8/10 or more) are vanishingly unlikely in a true random sample of 1000 people. Can you imagine that the top 1% of high school students would not answer at least 8 of these correctly? What are the odds of not getting 1 person in the top 1%? That's .99 to the 1000th power. That's a tiny number. And no one scored more than 7. Do you think people in the top 10% could score 8/10? The odds of having none of them are .9 to the 1000th power. I've only got the crappy computer calculator, but that's gotta be getting on toward infinitesimal. So why didn't anyone score that high? And, again, there's no roundoff error. The totals equalled 100% for all the total answers. So the total who got any 8, 9 or 10 correct answers is less than .05%, and the total of those three numbers of correct answers has to be approximately that low for there to be no roundoff error in their totals.

Research methods
First, it was a telephone survey. They do not say how they acquired the names and phone numbers or how the numbers were selected. Do they know that their survey covered only Oklahoma public high school students? More importantly, what kind of incentive does anyone have to answer thoughtfully a phone survey. The last one I received was a push poll on the nutritional benefits and gustatory delights of beans. If I didn't hang up on these jokers, I might not give them much in the way of answers. A real test would give them time and an incentive to get the answers right. In fact, there are whole chunks of government that try to acquire this information about students.

Their reason for not using the NAEP is that it does not give state-by-state breakdowns. Actually, it doesn't appear to give them for civics although it does for reading, writing, science and mathematics. The main problem with their using the NAEP is that it doesn't give them easy fodder for pulling out embarrassing anecdotal data. "Look, 70% of X didn't know that . . . " is scarier than, "Look, Oklahoma is not statistically significantly below the national average on a range of questions about. . . " So, while it might be nice to get a better handle on what those scores mean, this survey is not the way to get it.

Second, the questions are vague or ambiguous. The OCPA claims that the questions came from a list of citizenship questions from the government, but it is a private "" site. Many other questions on that site are poorly worded and outright baffling. The first 7 questions all relate to the flag, and only two of those are about the significance of the symbolism in the flag. Further, several of the ten questions that the OCPA claims came from that list of 100 questions is not even on the list.

The ones that are on the list are:
1. What is the supreme law of the land? (Except the original says, "What is the supreme court law. . . "--I don't really know what that means.)
2. What do we call the first ten amendments to the Constitution?
4. How many justices are on the Supreme Court?
5. Who wrote the Declaration of Independence? (Sort of--see below)
7. What are the two major political parties in the United States?
8. We elect a U.S. Senator for how many years? (Except the original says, "For how long do we elect each senator?")
9. Who was the first President of the United States?

The ones that are not on the list are:
3. What are the two parts of the U.S. Congress?
6. What ocean is on the east coast of the United States?
10. Who is in charge of the executive branch?

The question about the author of the Declaration of Independence is clearer on the original list. Original: Who is the main writer of the Declaration of Independence? OCPA: Who wrote the Declaration of Independence? Of course, since Jefferson was not the sole, but only the main, author, one may reasonably say "Jefferson" for the first question and "I do not know" (there being no unique right answer) to the second.

Finally, the source doesn't look that great either since it calls the Emancipation Proclamation the Emancipation Declaration (question #69). That's not a good sign.
I do not know that this factor undermines the study, but it does not increase my confidence in the quality of the study.

"How long do we elect Senators?" That should be "What is the (constitutionally mandated) length of a senator's term in office?" Or something like that. This question assumes that "We" elect them. I never elected any Senators when I was in OK, and they served a helluva lot longer than one term most of the time, so "we" elected them for more than six years. I'm not saying this unclarity completely explains the weird answers, but it suggests that the survey was not done with the strictest of standards.

"Who is in charge of the executive branch?" is similarly unclear. Supposing this means the executive branch of the federal government, one may still have doubts about who exactly is in charge (whether it is really, or only nominally, the president). One might also think that the answer to this question ought to be the people of the U.S. whom the chief executive is supposed to represent. In any case, this question is simply not phrased precisely enough to avoid misunderstanding, and that's true of almost all the questions.

In summary, this survey is poorly done with an unknown means of selecting subjects, with poor or unclear wording on many questions, which was done over the telephone and thus provided no incentive for students to care about the questions. There is simply no way to conclude much of anything about the Oklahoma high school students' knowledge of civics from this survey. The obvious bias of those who commissioned the survey may have played some role in its poor quality, and there is even some reason to think that the results (in many ways too perfect) have been doctored. I make no claims about the intelligence or knowledge of Oklahoma high school students, but this survey does not prove anything about them.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Fake Entry for the On-line Encyclopedia of Philosophy

I've discovered the top 100 submission requests for the On-Line Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and this has made me realize how little I really know. In particular, I have never heard of one of these top 100 suggestions: "Le Doeuff". If you are Le Doeuff, a friend or follower of Le Doeuff, please do not take offense, but I could not resist writing a sample entry for "Le Doeuff" as follows:

Buford Le Doeuff, literally, "The Doof", was the preeminent philosopher of stupidity. Few philosophers have studied this centrally important concept. Le Doeuff did not set out to study stupidity but stumbled into it when his dissertation advisor rejected his prospectus saying, "This is the finest example of stupidity in the history of philosophy." Le Doeuff, apparently misunderstanding his advisor, embarked on his life-long quest to understand the nature of stupidity.

Le Doeuff is credited with discovering the seven laws of stupidity:
1. Stupid is as stupid does.
This is the behaviorist criterion of stupidity. One cannot be stupid without acting stupidly, and people who are stupid will act stupidly.

2. The stupidity of a group increases over time.
Over time people become stupider, and smarter people are not capable of making stupid people less stupid.

3. The stupidity of a group increases until it is equal to (or greater than--that is, is stupider than) the stupidity of the stupidest member of the group.
It is not possible for smarter people to influence the stupidity of the group. Stupid people do, however, drag the intelligence of the group down to their level.

5. Non-reflectivity of stupidity.
Stupid people are not capable of recognizing their stupidity. In fact, the stupider someone is the more likely that person is to think that he/she is not stupid.

6. The stupidity of a group increases over time.

7. Repetition of stupidity.
Stupid people do not learn from the past but are destined to repeat their stupid actions.

Having discovered these laws of stupidity, Le Doeuff worked on the Ontological Stupidity argument, claiming that there must be a stupidest possible being. He then dropped out of academia in order to search for this person never realizing that the stupidest possible person was himself.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Richard Cohen--Master Satirist

"Call him Ishmael" begins Richard Cohen's latest column.

Apparently, this is a reference to Moby Dick, the tragic tale of a man obsessed with revenge whose baleful charisma managed to infect his crew with his obsession, his mad vendetta. It is, of course, a complex tale, but ultimately a tale of hatred gone mad, a hatred that curdles the blood, darkens the soul and drives one to the brink of insanity. This vengeance drove Ahab and his crew on to self-destruction, so that Ishmael alone survived to tell of it. Indeed, the language here is more reminiscent of Job than any other Biblical book, implying that the self-destruction is a kind of punishment from the Almighty for Ahab's hubris. And Ishmael, as the survivor, is the one who alone learns this lesson, learns of the folly of a fixation on revenge. Thus, while it may appear that Cohen is simply reciting a phrase from a poorly remembered work, a phrase that might give his work a veneer of sophistication and semblance of gravity, the phrase conjures up far more. This phrase conjures up the tale of our own obsession with vengeance, our own White Whale, and of our descent into hell as our nation tortured itself more than its adversary. As we corrupted ourselves, we left the enemy untouched.

Call him a terrorist or a suicide bomber or anything else you want, but understand that he is willing -- no, anxious -- to give his life for his cause. Call him also a captive, and know that he works with others as part of a team, like the Sept. 11 hijackers, all of whom died, willingly. Ishmael is someone I invented, but he is not a far-fetched creation. You and I know he exists, has existed and will exist again. He is the enemy.

This is the terrorist as superhuman, a being so powerful he "exists, has existed and will exist again", ever after amen. It is an enemy whose existence is beyond our power to end--one who will exist even after we kill him--and whose evil lies far beyond our ken, one who can only be destroyed if we sink to its level of depravity and hatred. This imagined superhuman evil is the Moby Dick of contemporary America. We know this being in our imaginations as one invented, one Dick Cheney would have to invent, to maintain our state of constant fear. Just as Moby Dick appears ever on the horizon, ever just beyond our reach, but always known, remembered with tales told in the darkness of the night when the reasoning centers of our brains are lulled to sleep, when only the ancient brain, the hateful, vengeful, fearful brain still wakes.

Now he is in American custody. What will happen? How do we get him to reveal his group's plans and the names of his colleagues? It will be hard. It will, in fact, be harder than it used to be. He can no longer be waterboarded. He knows this. He cannot be deprived of more than a set amount of sleep. He cannot be beaten or thrown up against even a soft wall. He cannot be threatened with shooting or even frightened by the prospect of an electric drill. Nothing really can be threatened against his relatives -- that they will be killed or sexually abused.

The fear is here as well, the fear that dwells deep within the darkest heart of Dick Cheney. There is nothing we can do to this superhuman evil; we needs must destroy the Beast, yet nothing within our power as civilized humans can harm Him. Nay, even the softest wall, the gentlest squeeze--the briefest electrocution--of the testicles, the tiniest threat to capture their children and sell them to a lifetime of rape and sexual abuse are blandishments beyond the civilized world. Where is the harm, they say, in threats of terrorism, of constant fear for one's loved ones? Indeed, surely none could see threats of violence to these loved ones as harmful. Surely none could see the awareness of one's helplessness, one's inability to prevent one's doom or the torture and death of one's loved ones, as in any way harmful or wrong.

Here, in a masterstroke, Cohen shows that the torturer's terrorism is exactly the harm we have endured. The fear we engender in our captives perfectly mirrors the fear Al Qaeda causes us. Al Qaeda terrorizes by threatening us with death at any moment; we terrorize our captives by threatening them--and their families--with death and rape. In fighting terrorism, we have literally become terrorists. To fight the monsters without we have become monsters within.

Our pseudo-intellectual debates about torture are poor disguises for the childish terror within, the night terror of a wailing babe in need of solace but lost in a world without safety or love. We cover over this fear with false sophistication, false complexity. This false sophistication--say, in the form of rhetorical questions--places us at a distance from the reality of our deeds.

This business of what constitutes torture is a complicated matter. It is further complicated by questions about its efficacy: Does it sometimes work? Does it never work? Is it always immoral? What about torture that saves lives? What if it saves many lives? What if one of those lives is your child's?

Are we monsters? Cohen asks. Are we such febrile children that we need to disguise our degradation with feeble rationalizations? Must we hypocritically defend our desire for vengeance, for our bombings and our shootings and our burnings, for the deaths of countless children in Iraq and Afghanistan, of children taken into custody and tortured by our representatives, by masking it in a concern for our own children? Must we continue the pretense that the children he means are not in reality ourselves? Surely, these questions answer themselves.

Attorney General Eric Holder has named a special prosecutor to see whether any of the CIA's interrogators broke the law. Special prosecutors are often themselves like interrogators -- they don't know when to stop. They go on and on because, well, they can go on and on. One of them managed to put Judith Miller of The New York Times in jail -- a wee bit of torture right there. No CIA interrogator can feel safe. The interrogators are about to be interrogated.

Cohen shows us that with torture taken as acceptable, as common practice, one can no longer reject it in the common course of things. If torture is to be done, it can be done to discover the torturers themselves, just as we use it on the imagined terrorists, we must also allow that the torturers, the apologists for torture, should also be subject to it. Indeed, once that floodgate is opened there is no way to justify--save preening self-indulgence and special pleading--withholding torture's application to the CIA, the contractors, and most of all our media and political class that sought to justify these actions. If we consider torture part of the humane and civilized world, we can draw no distinction between polite questioning of a witness to illegality and careful examination of evidence to determine who may have violated the law, on the one hand, and crushing the testicles of a stack of naked detainees, hooded and freezing in sub-zero temperatures, tormented and broken by stress positions, on the other.

Moreover, Cohen advises, the sense of privilege and smugness that our media elite maintains makes them incapable of realizing the real harm they cause to others. They, like sociopaths, see only harm to themselves, no matter how trivial, as of significance while the agony of the man on the rack is of little consequence.

Yet Cohen knows that the media elites will play games, will pretend ignorance, will evade responsibility for the horrific crime of torture. If they pretend to an abhorrence of torture, they may sleep at night while still praying to kill the brutes, to exterminate them all. If only such measures can be proven necessary, we can take our pleasure in them. But, alas, pretends the elite, we shall never know whether it is necessary. Yet we must torture, we must kill and maim, on the off chance that this will prevent harm to us. It is in this pretense of ignorance and high-mindedness that the media elite's viciousness, filled with the secret joy of the sociopathic torturer, hides. Cohen pretends,

Maybe Mohammed [Atta] was waterboarded more than 100 times for nothing. It is an appalling possibility.

I am, as you can see, full of questions. I have, as you can see, few answers.

At last, the media's pretense at sophistication may be torn away and revealed in Dick Cheney's malevolent countenance. We cannot, pretend the media mavens, be associated with him, but we must have our torture. We must!

I am torn between my desire for absolute security and my abhorrence of torture. The one thing I know is that ideology does not provide an answer. For me, it settles nothing that Dick Cheney supported enhanced interrogation and that Cheney was wrong and deceitful on the war. It settles nothing that Cheney defined torture as something so extreme that almost anything less than, say, the rack is permissible interrogation. The issue is not Cheney. The issue is the issue.

The issue is, was and ever shall be, the issue. Nothing other than the issue shall be the issue, and the issue shall be all that it is. Amen. Pass the power drill. So sayeth the media prophets.

The questions of what constitutes torture and what to do with those who, maybe innocently, applied what we now define as torture have to be removed from the political sphere. They cannot be the subject of an ideological tug of war, both sides taking extreme and illogical positions -- torture never works, torture always works, torture is always immoral, torture is moral if it saves lives. Torture always is ugly. So, though, is the hole in the ground where the World Trade Center once stood.

As Cohen brings his cruel satire to a close, he exposes the Beltway pundits final, feeble gesture, the pretended equivalence of obviously distinct extremes. The media will say, says Cohen, that both extremes are wrong. Murdering everyone would be too extreme; murdering no one is too extreme in the other direction. Clearly the best solution is to murder just some. No one but an extremist could object to that.

Cohen's satire is subtle and barbed, both wicked and telling. Swift would be proud: Should the Irish eat their children? Should we torture people based on fantastic fears, covering over our fault with protestations of ignorance, all to satisfy a grotesque lust for vengeance? Surely not, says Cohen's truly brilliant work. I am only glad that none in our enlightened age could mean a word of such an article.

Updated for clarity.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Megan McCardle on Bringing Guns to Rallies

Megan McCardle, the Atlantic's In-House, Libertarian Know-Nothing, claims that it is essentially no big deal to bring weapons to political events such as protests or town-hall events as long as the known weapon-toters remain outside and can be spotted by the Secret Service so that any potential violence on their part can be prevented. She believes bringing guns to these events is in poor taste and not productive, but that it is at least mostly harmless or does not significantly increase the risk of harm. Having received criticism for her claims, she responds to her commenters:

A lot of commenters seem sure that having a legal gun around substantially increases the likelihood that someone will, in a moment of rage, shoot someone--so sure that they are clearly convinced I am a lunatic for even suggesting otherwise. I understand the intuition, and maybe it's right. But the evidence for the proposition is not all that strong.

First of all, as it shows in the articles I linked earlier, something like 90% of homicides are committed by people with criminal records, i.e. people who probably cannot legally own a gun. A lot of the rest are committed by juveniles, or mentally unstable people, who also cannot legally own a gun.

I'm not sure Ms. McCardle quite understands probability. The fact that most murders are committed by people with criminal records does not tell us much directly about the probability that someone without a criminal record will commit a crime. In any event, the real issue is not whether I, sitting around my house without a criminal record, am likely to commit homicide. The questions are, "What is the likelihood that someone who brings a weapon to a political event will fire it at someone?" More specifically, "What is the likelihood that someone who advocates, or listens to talk radio personalities who advocate, violence against political leaders or others will, having brought a weapon to a political event, use it?" And, we must ask, "How much, if at all, does people carrying weapons at political events increase the likelihood that someone else will bring a weapon to political events? And given any such increase, how likely is it that these others will fire their weapons?"

The truth is we don't know for certain what these probabilities are, but we can be certain that they are higher than the probability that people will fire a weapon if they haven't brought one. Put it this way: The odds are not good that you will get a venereal disease if you have unprotected sex, but the odds are a lot higher than if you don't have sex at all. So, how much increase in the probability of gun violence do we need in order to consider bringing guns to political events to be a risk factor that we should take steps to reduce? We might recognize that the probability of VD is low given our having sex, but we might still take precautions because even a low probability of such a bad outcome is something to avoid. How much of an increase in the probability of gun violence is McCardle willing to accept? 1%? 5%? That's the question that must be answered, and it does not help matters to say things such as this:

I’m saying that the more hysterical claims about the behavior—that it makes it just a matter of time until someone is shot, that the only reason they could possibly be doing this is to imply that they will shoot anyone who tries to oppose their political opinions—are not based on any factual evidence, only a fervent belief in the bad character of anyone who likes guns too much.

Here McCardle is committing a strawman. No one said that "the only reason they could possibly be doing this is to imply that they will shoot anyone who tries to oppose their political opinions." Since no such violence has occurred as yet, no one could possibly mean this. McCardle is just conveniently taking aim at a big straw target instead of addressing any arguments people have actually made. Perhaps her own experience, metaphorically, requires her to make bigger, easier targets, but that's not the way debate should take place in an arena devoted to resolving problems.

Further she claims that the presence of weapons is not much of a concern because:

You have access to fatal weapons every day. How often, after a fight with someone, have you been seriously tempted to run them over with your car? Or grab a knife from the rack in the kitchen and brandish it at them? Put rat poison in their morning coffee? Or take an exacto blade to their throat while asleep?

I'm surprised that these analogies are still used given the obvious relevant differences between the cases. I am much more likely to use a gun to kill someone because that's what the gun is made for. The automobile (exacto blade, etc. What an imagination! I declare!) is not made for killing people and we need to have it for other purposese. I could beat the crap out of someone with my X-box, but I'm much more likely to play X-box with it because that's what it's made for and what it's especially good at. So, the fact that people show up at rallies with weapons is more cause for concern than if they show up driving cars or with hands or shoestrings because, even though these things could be used for deadly violence, they are not designed for that purpose and are things we need to have for normal functioning anyway. If the protest is not on a major bus or train route, I may have to drive, but I don't need a handgun to get there. If I thought that the US had a history of shoestring violence at political rallies or against political leaders, I might discourage people from wearing shoelaces. But that's not the case; weapons are just different from these other things.

She further comments.

Jason Zengerle indicates that the real point is that openly carrying weapons at a protest makes it harder for the Secret Service to do their job. Probably. On the other hand, lots of things make it harder for the Secret Service to do their job. Protesting is much harder on the Secret Service--almost certainly harder than one guy openly carrying a gun, because the protesters are a crowd of people who have to be watched constantly for suspicious movements. Should we ban protesting? Or force the people who do it off the premises and into a park eight blocks away?

Perhaps my irony meter has again fallen off, but isn't this exactly what GWBush did for 8+ years? Did McCardle protest Bush's actions? I don't have the heart to look. But, again, the analogy is not a good one. Protesting does not significantly increase the chances of violence whereas there is good reason to think that carrying weapons will. In this case, as Zengerle is noting, the potential increase in violence is not just from the known gun-toters but from potential unknown gun-toters who would be more difficult to track with a lot of other gun-toters around. The relevant question is whether protesters provide the same kind of camouflage for an unknown gun-toter that a known gun-toter does. Sure giant puppets could hide almost anything, and they can be distracting, but there's more protective camouflage in a group of similar people--the size and frequency of which are likely to increase if these actions go unchallenged--than in a larger, even noisier, group of different people.

Note I'm too lazy and generally convinced of the purposelessness of going through and providing all the original sourcing for this post. Anyway, life's too short, etc. Here and here are the two places I got my data.

Journalistic Malpractice on NPR, Bullshit and Assorted Weirdness

I heard two stories on NPR today that made me want to yell at the radio.

The first was prompted by that egregious op-ed by Bill Bradley. Bradley regurgitated some Republican propaganda about the high cost of medical malpractice insurance. (That's the stuff that George W. Bush said, [quoting from memory] "prevents OB/GYNs from practicing their love for women across the country.") Then he argued for negotiating trading opposition to limitations on jury awards for medical malpractice for opposition to health care reform. Bipartisanship!

As we all know, there is no good evidence that medical malpractice insurance is costing consumers much money (it's less than 1% of total health care costs), and capping the awards means people harmed terribly by medical malpractice will not receive sufficient remedy. Nonetheless, as long as you're bargaining with other people's lives, the cost is cheap. Furthermore, Republicans in Congress are as opposed to negotiation as ever. There is exactly no chance than any significant number of Republicans are going to vote for health care reform with any teeth at all. So, Bradley's op-ed lives in its own fairy-world of bipartisan comity along with all the sprites and elves and ogres of fantasy.

But that's not my topic. My topic is NPR's coverage of this, which, if there were justice, would be sufficient for a lawsuit charging them with journalistic malpractice. They introduce the topic, then say something to the effect of: Although the influence of medical malpractice insurance on health care costs is debatable, its political impact may be more important. Thus the dodge: we aren't going to evaluate or otherwise consider evidence about the egregious falsehood (that medical malpractice insurance is significantly driving up the costs of healthcare) but instead are only interested in the "politics" of it, how this influences the chance of some bill being passed. This is the standard shift "reporters" use when they don't want to inform the public, and draw the criticism and shrill cries of "liberal bias" for daring to inform the public accurately about some matter of public interest, but instead to engage in endless speculation about the possible consequences of something. If the speculation were informed by evidence, it wouldn't be completely unacceptable to engage in some of this (provided they also made copiously plain that there was no substance to the Republican claim), but they have a complete aversion to anything involving evidence, evaluation, research or truth. All they want to do is speculate, whether it's based on "death panels" ("Who cares whether there are any? What's the political effect of the belief that they exist?") or fallacious claims about medical malpractice insurance. What a pathetic spectacle NPR has become. . .

But that was not all for my morning NPRing. I did not catch who exactly they were interviewing but it was rapidly clear that he was a shill for the health insurance industry. The interviewer (I forget who. Steve Inskeep??) did actually question him about the possibility that the means of producing these bills had more to do with providing special deals to certain interest groups (he wasn't specific) than it had to do with providing meaningful health care reform for the American people. So, here was the sophistical response: "Do I think that some bills are better than others? Not that these bills will be bad, but that some will not be as good as others are. Yes, of course. Do I think that this legislation can be passed without a large number of components? Of course not. That's simply the nature of complex legislation." [Again, quoting from memory.]

This was a complete non-answer; it was masterful bullshit. Or not so masterful. Imagine if we had such bullshit-artists/lobbyist/PR flacks during the Constitutional Convention.
Interviewer: "Do you think that counting blacks as only 3/5 of a person is perhaps privileging the interests of whites over blacks?"

Response: "Do I think that some ways of constructing a constitution might be fairer than others? Yes. Do I think that it is possible to have a complex piece of legislation without a large number of components? Of course not."

Or how about this. Interviewer: Don't you think that an attempt to murder six million Jews might not be the fairest plan for all Germans?
Response: "Do I think that some ways of planning a social system might be better than others? Yes. Do I think that it is possible to have a demographic plan for society without a lot of components? No, of course not."

So, why do I still listen to NPR? It's better than the guys who think shouting "Queer!" at people is funny.

Final, totally unrelated note: On the way to work today, I saw a van with the worst advertising slogan ever. It said,

Adult Day Care: "Let us pamper your loved ones."

Some images you just do not want associated with your company. Here are some other suggestions:

Let us roto-root your loved ones' plumbing.

Let us be your enema, not your enemy!

We'd rather die, than let you diap-her!

We'll wipe your loved one's ass so you don't have to.

Paging Dr. Kevorkian.

Don't leave your loved ones wandering lost around the neighborhood. Let us.

Have no illusions, this is a cattle car for old people.

Thanks. I'll be here all week. Try the veal. (On second thought. . .)